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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Howard Chandler Christy

The Signing of the Constitution of the United States,
1939-40, Howard Chandler Christy
If you've ever prowled the halls of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, you've no doubt climbed the grand staircase and seen the largest canvas painting of the 20th country. It depicts The Signing of the Constitution of the United States.  It measures a stunning twenty feet tall and thirty feet across.  It was unveiled on May 29, 1940. The artist was Howard Chandler Christy. He was born in 1873 near Duncan Falls, Ohio, about 20 miles up river from my hometown. During his lifetime, he was probably the most famous Ohio artist alive and would certainly rank among the best the state has ever produced. A precocious farm boy, he painted his first watercolors at the tender age of four. By the time he was ten years old, he earned his first ten dollars painting a sign for a nearby merchant. As a teenager, he would hop riverboats passing near his family's farm and ride upriver to Zanesville, Ohio, turning out drawn portraits of the passengers to earn spending money, which he saved to study art in New York at the Art Student's League. As a student of William Merrit Chase, his mentor called him the finest pupil he ever had.

WW I Navy Recruiting Poster,
Howard Chandler Christy
Initially at least, Christy was a disappointment to his teacher. He began illustrating novels rather than fulfilling his potential in becoming a fine artist. Christy remarked that he'd rather have his pockets full of money than his studio full of unsold paintings. With the Spanish American War, Christy followed the action to Cuba. From there he sent back dispatches full of news and illustrations to such prestigious periodicals as Harper's Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, and Leslie's Weekly. When the war ended, he returned to New York to find he'd become a nationally known illustrator. In the early 1900s he illustrated books by American novelists such as Winston Churchill, James Whitcomb Riley, Jack London, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and by English authors Alfred, Lord Tennyson and H.G. Wells. He also illustrated for William Randolph Hearst's' Cosmopolitan. During the First World War, his Navy enlistment posters were credited by Navy Secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with having recruited thousands. One in particular, which has since become a collectors item, depicts a plucky "Christy Girl" decked out in navy blues with the words, "Gee, I wish I were a MAN, I'd join the NAVY" (how times have changed). Though somewhat sexist by today's standards, the thousands of Navy enlistees were no doubt glad she wasn't a man.

Grace Coolidge, 1924,
Howard Chandler Christy
After the war, Christy found his true calling as a portrait artist, painting such notables as President and Mrs. Grace Coolidge (at right), Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, and President Warren G. Harding. In one year alone (1921) he completed a staggering 30 painted portraits. His years working as an illustrator, pressed hard against deadlines, came to serve him well. Admirers loved the "suavity" of his brushwork and fresh spontaneity growing out of his illustrative painting techniques. However, dispite his portrait success, and his numerous, massive history paintings, the New York art world never embraced him. One critic, while admiring his likenesses, called his work "thin and brittle." By the same token, Christy never had much good to say about their Modern Art either. Publicly, he remarked, "...if the stuff I see represents their thoughts, all I can say is, if I felt that way I'd keep pretty quiet about it." Privately, he labeled abstract art with a four-letter term he learned as a boy in cleaning stables on the family farm. He died in 1952 at the age of 79, the greatest artist to ever come out of Morgan County, Ohio (so far).

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